February issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 12 years ago

Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance is a beautifully written, at once absorbing and wellcrafted novel in which the reader is instantly pulled into the world of a 13-year-old boy, Nuri Al-Alfie. Nuri is on holiday with his father when he meets Mona. Mona, 14 years older than Nuri, is 15 years younger than Nuri’s father. It is love at first sight for the young boy but it is ultimately the father that Mona marries.

The visceral emotions of love, jealousy and betrayal that the young Nuri is overcome with, are well expressed and felt throughout the novel as it slips easily between the past and the present and moves seamlessly from city to city. Matar does not indulge in lush descriptions yet he manages to capture the tone of different countries as he moves from place to place. “The sea was quiet” in Alexandria. In Cairo the city “hummed and clanked like an engine in the night.” Even emotions are not dwelt on for too long. A couple of sentences add detail and capture the moment effectively. Even though Nuri notices details and gestures, the book is essentially a narrative that moves fast and is difficult to put down.

It is a story seen through the eyes of a boy on the verge of adolescence. His relationship with his father is, at times, strained on account of his marriage to Mona. However, he soon regrets ever resenting his father, who disappears at some point in the book never to be seen again. His father Kamal Pasha Al-Alfie was once the “king’s closest advisor and one of the few men who could walk into the royal office without appointment.” Kamal Pasha is as mysterious after his absence as before it. It is not stated which country he actually comes from or how he occupies himself after “the revolution.”

Nuri’s relationships with older women — his late mother and his maidservant Naima — are quite intense and sometimes border on the inappropriate. It is not clear how aware Mona is of Nuri’s infatuation. Is she just trying to mother him? Does he misread her action as reciprocated feelings? Mona needs “to be adored” or perhaps she is constantly seeking the approbation of a boy whose mother she is trying to replace. Naima’s almost cloying need for the boy also begs explanation, as does the fact that his deceased mother looked happier in pictures, before the birth of Nuri, than she ever did in his lifetime.

There is a strong sense of longing throughout the book. The desire for his stepmother is built up right from the start as every move she makes is described in detail. The yearning for his father is felt right from the first line as he explains that “his absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.” As is the longing for the touch of his mother, whose death is established very early on in the novel. The mood and pace of the novel increasingly changes after the abduction. Mr Alfie’s secret, other life impinges on their memory of him, though cracks in the surface had started to appear earlier on in the book. As Nuri grows up, the character of his missing father continues to fill the page. Mr Alfie is a personality that develops slowly through the novel. From being a shadowy presence in the beginning he becomes more real and three-dimensional as the story unfolds.

Nuri finds it difficult to talk about his father’s disappearance even to his confidant German roommate, Alexei. Stuck in an English boarding school he initially hates, he resorts to lying and dodging questions about his father around his peers, thus developing something of a double life himself. He learns to compartmentalise as he keeps his own and other people’s secrets. The novel is full of twists and turns in the plot as Nuri comes of age and is no longer protected from the truth he would not have been able to handle as a young boy in the wake of a traumatic episode.

Anatomy of a Disappearance, about the abduction of an Arab man by “the authorities,”came out earlier this year against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. Interestingly, its author Hisham Matar found himself thrust into the role of spokesperson for his homeland, Libya. Matar’s own father was kidnapped in 1990, in Cairo, by the Egyptian authorities acting on Gaddafi’s request and taken to Libya’s Abu Salim prison. His family has had no word from him in many years.

Though Matar’s books are not autobiographical, both Anatomy of a Disappearance and his debut novel Country of Men, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2006, deal with the theme of a missing father.

This book review was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “A Miasma of Loss.”